- The World’s World
Yale University Press
272 Pages; Print, $30.00
With The International Novel, an eminent, though recently retired, professor of Renaissance literature at Yale has ventured into what is, for her, unfamiliar academic territory. The provenance of Annabel Patterson’s book, as she explains in her Acknowledgments, arose from an invitation to design a course for seniors in the International Studies major at Yale; with the Sterling Professor of Political Science adding as an incentive that he thought “she might get a nice little book out of it.” With the exception of a preliminary chapter on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924), all of the novels under discussion here—from Andrić, Kadare, Márquez, Khalifeh, Napiaul, Farah, Galanki, Rushdie, Pamuk, Bolaño, and Hosseini— were written after World War II, and Patterson admits that venturing into this contemporary field represented “a steep learning curve for me.” The point of this particular academic exercise at Yale seems to have been to persuade Political Science majors that the regions of the world they were studying had real people in them, and Patterson’s pedagogical style here is of the old liberal humanist variety, endeavouring “to show students…how novels can engage us, can demand sympathetic attention where social scientific discourse or statistics may not.”
Patterson also describes her book as “a prophylactic against insularity,” an attempt to inform intelligent young people about countries other than their own. Training in global awareness has become an integral part of today’s institutional agenda in the United States and in many other parts of the world, where universities now routinely conceive it as part of their mission to keep students informed of how territories relate to one another across a broad transnational domain. Patterson, however, deliberately rejects here the term globalization, which she associates dismissively with “the World Wide Web and other forms of communication,” as well as with “neoliberal policies” involving “the interdependence of financial markets.” Instead, in a more deliberately restricted way, she defines the international novel as one involved with a “self-conscious interrogation of national boundaries,” confining her ambit to fictional works that make the geographical parameters of any given country part of their subject matter. Most of her (quite short) chapters are prefaced by maps expertly drawn by Daniel Mugaburu, with the chapter on Sahar Khalifeh’s 1976 novel Wild Thorns, for example, offering an enlightening survey of how shifting national boundaries have impacted upon the troubled political and cultural situation in Israel, Palestine, and other countries of the Middle East.
The best things about Patterson’s book are its accessible and conversational style, probably modelled on the undergraduate lectures from which these chapters are taken, and the geographical range of material it covers. The chapter on Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (2002), for example, offers a brisk but illuminating account of how this Nobel Prize-winning author relates to the complicated politics of his native Turkey. Similarly, the chapter on Naipaul’s A Bend in the River (1979) surveys how the borders of African countries were decided by European powers at the Berlin conference of 1884-1885, and it considers how this imperial legacy has shaped current conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (the scene of Naipaul’s narrative). But by focusing so exclusively on the cartographies of nation states, Patterson avoids engaging with most of the current thinking about literature within an international framework, which tends to be more concerned with how globalization has become a state of mind, with different spatial zones being superimposed upon each other by fictional protagonists in often disorienting ways. This leads her into absurdity in her discussion of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (1988), which she calls “a cheat” because Rushdie’s work “distorted a real event that, if taken on its own terms, would have greatly illuminated the central conflict in Islam, the division between Sunni and Shia sects.” Like a convert fervently preaching a new religion, Patterson here subordinates literary, imaginative designs to positivistic and political ones. She is actually much more interesting and perceptive when observing...